Tuesday 31 July 2012

Folklore Snippets: Giant Women and Hellish Boys

Das Irrlicht (Will o' the Wisp) - by Arnold Böcklin

Here are three folklore snippets from a wonderful book called 'The Appearance of Evil: Apparitions of Spirits in Wales': edited with an introduction by John Harvey and published by the University of Wales Press, 2003.

Edmund Jones (1702-93) was an 18th century Welsh Dissenter, a minister and preacher who travelled  'on horseback and on foot, throughout Wales and his seventy years of service across, what he considered, a cursed and pestilent landscape infested with the emissaries of darkness.' A Relation of Apparitions of Spirits in the Principality of Wales -

- was published in 1780, but it was not written from what we now consider the usual motives for collecting and preserving folk tales and traditions.  Instead, Jones regarded the tales and incidents he collected (and frequently also experienced) as evidence of the genuine existence and interference of the supernatural and diabolical in everyday life - and hence, also, evidence for the truth of the gospels. (His argument, roughly, was: if bad spirits exist, as stated in the Bible, then so does God.)

I have given the extracts titles.  All page numbers are taken from the 2003 edition.

About the year 1748, J W James was going by night from Bedwas (with a young woman whom he pretended to court) towads Risca church-wakes on horseback.  Before they came over against Certwyn Machen hill (the east side of it facing the parish of Risca) they could see the resemblance of a boy going before them part of the way.  They suspected, by something in the appearance, that it was  not a real boy - as, indeed, it was not - but a hellish dangerous boy, as it soon appeared.  For while they looked upon it, they could see it suddenly putting its head between its legs and, transforming into a ball of light, tumbling a steep way towards the Certwyn, which is the top of the high Machen mountain - it being as easy for a spirit to go up as to come downhill.
(p 103)

Once, coming home at night from Abergavenny, Thomas Miles Harry was much oppressed with fears (as is usually the case before the appearance of evil spirits) in the way, when near home. His horse took fright, it seeing something he did not, and ran violently with him towards the house. Nor did Thomas’s fear cease when he was by the house. He was afraid to look about (expecting to see somewhat) and hastened to unsaddle his horse. But happening to cast his eye towards the other end of the years, he saw the appearance of a woman so prodigiously tall as to be about half as high as the tall beech trees at the other side of the yard. Glad was he of a house to enter in and rest.
(p 77)

A certain man in a field, burning turfs, saw the fairies coming through the field where he lay blowing the fire in one of the pits. They went by like a burial, imitating the singing of psalms as they went, and, doubtless, the very tune sung at the approaching funeral.  One of them leaped over his legs.  He rose up to see where they would go, and followed them into a field that led into a wood.  Soon after, a real burial came through the field, and he lay down by the pit of turfs to see what they would do. One of the company actually leaped over his legs in passing by, just as the fairies had done before.  They also sung psalms at the burial, as the fairies foreshadowed.
(p 58)

Monday 30 July 2012

Richard Coeur-de-Lion - Hollywood Hero or Sneering Villain?

You'll find me over at the History Girls today, wondering how on earth Richard the Lionheart has managed to go down in history as an English Hero (with a statue outside the Houses of Parliament, no less). Just click on this link.

Friday 27 July 2012

Tam Lin

by Gillian Philip
Carterhaugh, a farm on the Buccleuch Estate, here seen across the Ettrick Water.  
As a child I don’t think I was aware of the story of TAM LIN, one of many mortal men stolen away by the Queen of the Faeries. I’m not even sure when I first read or heard such tales; stories of the faery people were simply a kind of background music that I gradually noticed and that came to fascinate me. Tam Lin is just one variation on a theme that sometimes has a happy ending, more often less so: a mortal – more often than not a man – is foolish or brave or naive enough to go away with the faeries.

There’s a recurring notion that once involved with the People of Peace, you’re going to need all your wits, courage and – usually – the help of a friend to get away. More often than not, even all of those aren’t enough, and that makes many of the stories melancholy.

Tam Lin is a little different, and that’s why I’m fond of it. The traditional ballad begins with a warning not to go to the woods of Carterhaugh, because young Tam Lin is there – a man who was taken by the Queen of the Faeries, who now protects their sacred woods, and who will demand a penalty of anyone who trespasses. Earlier versions are pretty clear about what that penalty will be... and when young Janet, whose father nominally owns the wood, dares to go there to pick roses, she comes back not just wildly in love, but pregnant.

Luckily the love is mutual, and Tam explains to Janet that the Queen of Elfland saved and took him when he fell from his horse in these woods. He is her prized mortal lover, but every seven years the Queen must pay a tithe of souls to Hell, and he fears that this Halloween, he will be the tithe. Janet can save him, and free him from the Queen’s thrall, but it will take huge courage. She must wait in the trees till she sees the faery folk ride in procession through the woods. She must let the first two horses pass, but when the third – a milk-white steed – appears, she must pull him down from it. 

The faeries, he warns her, will be enraged, and now will come the hard part. She has to hold onto him whatever happens, though they’ll morph him into many hideous forms to try to make her let go. Sure enough, when she does as he tells her and pulls him from his horse, he is turned into a snake, a newt, a bear, a lion, red-hot iron, then burning lead. Through all the transformations, Janet holds on  for dear life, and at the touch of the burning lead, forewarned by Tam, she tips her burden into the water of the nearby well. Tam climbs out, returned to his human form and free of servitude to the Queen. Though the Queens rails about the ‘theft’ of her dearest mortal, she sullenly admits defeat, and the young couple live, as they should, happily ever after.

Thomas Rhymer & the Queen of Elphame by Kate Greenaway
The story has many parallels and similarities in other traditions and tales – Thomas Rhymer, Cupid & Psyche, Childe Rowland, and even Beauty and the Beast: with the last, for instance, there’s the forbidden forest and the rose motif; the threatening inhuman figure with whom the heroine falls in love; his former identity as a noble young lord; and the fact that the heroine must go through dangers and horrors to rescue him. (There’s a theory that Beauty & the Beast is a later bowdlerisation of the Tam Lin story, leaving out the sex. I’ve always rather liked the Disney version more than their other ‘fairytales’, not least for its gutsy heroine, but it’s difficult to imagine it including ravishing among the roses followed by pregnancy...)

The reversal of ‘traditional’ fairytale roles is one of the most appealing aspects of Tam Lin. Tam is effectively helpless before the Faery Queen, though there’s nothing emasculated about him. It’s Janet who must free him, and she’s willing to undergo torments to do so. The fact that it all ends happily is unusual for a tale of the Faery Court. 

Belief in faeries is still strong in areas of Scotland, which isn’t wholly surprising. There are still places wild enough for the barriers between reality and ‘something else’ to seem remarkably, tangibly thin (not least the haunting Isle of Colonsay, whose former laird MacPhie seems to have had an unusual number of run-ins with the people of the Otherworld). Superstitions still exist quite strongly (my mother-in-law’s gardener swore no good would come of her telling him to cut down a rowan tree, and blamed the foul deed immediately when the house subsequently burned down). At a relative’s baptism I remember being quite sure that an aged aunt’s refusal to drink from a green cup was down to an unwillingness to offend the faeries. As it turned out the prejudice was an extreme sectarian one, but I can’t believe the two aren’t linked, somehow and somewhere in the past.

As for the disappearance of unfortunate mortals, there are surprisingly recent tales. Tomnahurich is a hill in the middle of Inverness that’s long been associated with the Otherworld. A local story tells of two buskers, dressed in kilts and carrying pipes (all perfectly normal) who seemed so disoriented and terrified among the traffic that they spent a night in the police cells. When they were brought before the sheriff next day – luckily a Gaelic speaker, since they could speak nothing else – they explained that their panic was down to the world seeming to have changed a great deal since last night, when they were offered good money to play at a gathering of lords and ladies beneath Tomnahurich hill. 

At a loss, the sheriff returned them for the time being to the cells, where a minister was summoned to the disturbed young men. As soon as he began to pray, and God’s name was mentioned, the young men, their instruments, and their payment all crumbled to dust.

It’s a fanciful story, and appears in many forms over the centuries, but in wilder landscapes it’s not hard to imagine another barely-seen world, repressed (perhaps temporarily...) by modernity and religion. Maybe that’s why the stories and their attached superstitions are resilient enough to survive into the contemporary world. 

Or possibly it’s because the fairy stories are so entangled with religion and superstition and the beliefs of even more ancient times. The Fairy Hill of Aberfoyle in Perthshire is believed to house the spirits of the local dead, in a way that echoes the far older beliefs of those who buried their dead in chambered cairns. Catherine Czerkawska’s play The Secret Commonwealth is the tale of Aberfoyle minister Robert Kirk, who wrote a book of the same title, and whose knowledge was thought to come straight from the faeries themselves. He’s another one who meddled with them at his own peril: angry at his betrayal of their secrets, the faeries were said to have faked his death while abducting him to the Otherworld. He came to his cousin in a dream, telling him of his captivity and promising to appear at his own funeral – at which moment the cousin must throw a knife over his head to free him. Kirk duly appeared – but alas, the cousin was too gobsmacked to perform the required act, and the minister was never seen again.

It’s a chilling and wonderful story, but in Czerkawska’s play it’s used also as a metaphor for the loss of the ancient beliefs, the gradual withdrawal of an older tradition before the Christian ascendancy. What’s so fascinating about the fairy traditions is the way they were not discarded, but woven into the new beliefs: loathed by the Church, becoming associated with the devil and necromancy – but never wholly dying out. 

Yet that mingling isn’t all bad. One of the loveliest cross-traditions, and my favourite, is the one – varying from region to region – that says the faeries are the rebel angels. Thrown out of Paradise by an angry God, the angels that fell into the sea became seals and seal people. The ones that were caught in the sky as they fell became the Merry Dancers, the Northern Lights. And the ones that fell on land? They became the Faeries.

Gillian Philip writes across genres: ‘anything that comes into my head, including fantasy, crime, science fiction and horror’. 'Bad Faith' is a Scottish-set dystopia about a society ruled by a tight-minded religious elite, and ‘Crossing the Line’ is a hard-edged thriller with a hint of the supernatural. As Gabriella Poole she has written the 'Darke Academy' series for Hothouse. 

Gillian’s 'Rebel Angels' series ('Firebrand', 'Bloodstone', and - out in August - 'Wolfsbane') have to be some of the best new fantasies of recent years. Beginning in the 16th century at a time of witch hunts and burnings, it follows the fortunes of Seth MacGregor, bastard prince of the Scottish faeries, the Sithe, and an attractive hero in every sense of the word: lover, warrior, and owner of a sinister and beautiful waterhorse from the loch.  The books are rooted in the history and folklore of Scotland, and quite unflinching about the cruelty and hardship of the times. The Sithe are ruled by a queen, Kate NicNiven, who is volatile, cruel and devious in the best traditions of fairy queens, and who deliberately stretches the loyalty of her subjects, Seth and his brother Conan included, almost to breaking point. There’s a protecting Veil between the land of the Sithe and the mortal world, and Kate wants to tear it away. And she invokes the help of some hauntingly unpleasant creatures called the Lammyr…
Picture credits: Carterhaugh:  The copyright on this image is owned by Richard Webb and is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.
Thomas the Rhymer & the Queen of Elphame by Kate Greenaway, d. 1901. Wikimedia Commons. Cleaned up from a scan found at Winterspells

Wednesday 25 July 2012

These caught my eye...

A handful of posts which caught my eye:

Steve Feasey talks to Lucy Coats about imps - particularly the Lincoln Imp, whom I hadn't heard of - at Scribble City Central

"It is morally right to respect the creator and not steal from him': Nicola Morgan on the Awfully Big Blog Adventure on digital piracy

A hoard of bronze-age swords on display in Cumbria at Esmeralda's Cumbrian History and Folklore

And: enthusiastic and charming: children's letters to Susan Price at A Nennius Blog

Tuesday 24 July 2012

Margaret Mahy

I was saddened to hear yesterday of the death after a short illness of the wonderful New Zealand writer Margaret Mahy.  She was 76, and in this day and age that's young... and Margaret Mahy was a writer who knew what it's like to be young.  She wrote with insight and brilliance for all ages, from young children ('A Lion in The Meadow', 'The Downhill Crocodile Whizz') to young adults ('The Haunting', 'The Changeover', 'The Other Side of Silence'), and to call her a fantasy writer is only to begin to indicate - to anyone who hasn't read them - the individuality of her books. 

'The Haunting', which won the Carnegie Medal, was the first of her titles which I ever read - back in 1982 - and I was inexorably drawn in from the first paragraph:

When, suddenly, on an ordinary Wednesday, it seemed to Barney that the world tilted and ran downhill in all directions, he knew he was about to be haunted again.  It had happened when he was younger, but he had thought that being haunted was a babyish thing that you grew out of, like crying when you fell over, or not having a bike.

But Barney's Great-Uncle Cole has died - and Barney is about to be haunted by the apparition of a mysterious child in a blue velvet suit who repeats: 'Barnaby's dead!  Barnaby's dead - and I'm going to be very lonely.'  As the apparition appears any time, anywhere,  Barney becomes convinced that his dead uncle is sending him messages:

When he opened his eyes first thing in the morning he had seen through his window not the shaggy Palmer lawn and hedge, but a forest filled with glittering birds and dark red flowers, which had slowly faded to let the usual scene show through and take over.  The blue milk jug on the table had wavered into another shape - a head, covered with tight blue curls and a dull bluish skin, crowned with a chain of gold leaves and berries.  Its lips had moved, saying words he could not hear, and had then given him a terrifying smile.

It's so vivid it could be too frightening if it weren't for the fact that, as in most of Mahy's books, the child protagonist is not alone but surrounded by a large, charming, scatty but supportive family, whose members do their best to help him.  As Barney's stepmother says, defending him against the power that threatens him:

"He's mine all right!  Everyone in this family belongs to everyone else - belongs with everyone else, rather.  I've looked after him for a year now - ironed his shirts, made his school lunches, told him stories. ... But what matters most is that he wants to be ours, and he doesn't want to be yours.  That's what counts."

I'm sad she's gone. But at least I can go and read her books again. Fortunately there are many to choose from and I know they'll bring me wisdom and delight.

Friday 20 July 2012

Folklore Snippets: The Fairy Rade

Sir Joseph Noel Paton: 'The Fairy Rade: Carrying Off A Changeling - Midsummer's Eve

In honour of my recent stay in the beautiful Scottish border country (it rained every day, but we had a lot of fun anyway), here's an eye-witness account, from an unnamed 'old woman of Nithsdale’,  of a Fairy Ride or cavalcade of the fairies, also known as the Seelie Hunt.

It’s taken from Thomas Keightley’s Fairy Mythology which was first published in 1828 - my second edition copy dates from 1850 – and, as is often the way of folk accounts, is strangely convincing.  (A Scots mile (now obsolete) was about 220 yards longer than an English mile.)

“In the night afore Roodmass I had trysted with a neebor lass a Scots mile frae hame to talk anent buying braws i’ the fair.  We had nae sutten lang aneath the haw-buss till we heard the loud laugh of fowk riding, wi’ the jingling o’ bridles, and the clankin’ o’ hoofs.  We banged up, thinking they wad ride owre us.  We kent nae but it was drunken fowk ridin’ to the fair i’ the forenight.  We glow’red roun’ and roun’ and sune saw it was the Fairie-fowks Rade.  We cowred down till they passed by.  A beam o’ light was dancin’ owre them mair bonnie than moonshine: they were a wee wee fowk wi’ green scarfs on, but ane that rade foremost, and that ane was a good deal larger than the lave wi’ bonnie lang hair, bun about wi’ a strap whilk glinted like stars.  They rade on braw wee white naigs, wi’ unco lang swooping tails, an’ manes hung wi’ whustles that the win’ played on.  This an’ their tongue when they sang was like the soun’ of a far-away psalm.   Marion and me was in a brade lea fiel’, where they came by us; a high hedge o’ haw-trees keepit them frae gaun through Johnnie Corrie’s corn, but they lap owre it like sparrows, and gallopt into a green know beyont it.  We gaed i’ the morning to look at the treddit corn; but the fient a hoofmark was there, nor a blade broken.”

Here's my tamer English version:

In the night before Roodmas [the Feast of the Cross, May 3rd] I had met up with a neighbour lass, a Scots mile from home, to talk about buying pretty things at the fair. We hadn’t been sitting long under the hawthorn bushes when we heard the loud laugh of folk riding, with jingling bridles and clattering hoofs.  We jumped up, thinking they would ride over us.  We assumed it was drunken folk riding to the fair in the early evening. We stared round and about and soon saw it was the Fairy-folks Ride.  We cowered down as they passed by.  A beam of light was dancing over them, prettier than moonshine: they were tiny little folk with green scarves on, all but the one who rode in front, who was a good deal bigger than the rest, with lovely long hair bound about with a ribbon that glinted like stars. They rode on fine little white horses, with uncommonly long sweeping tails, and manes hung with whistles which the wind played on.  This, and their voices when they sang, was like the sound of a far-away psalm. Marion and I were in a broad pasture field, where they came by us; a high hedge of hawthorn trees prevented them from going through Johnnie Corrie’s cornfield, but they leaped over it like sparrows and galloped into a green hill beyond it.  We went next morning to look at the trodden-down corn, but devil a hoofmark  [ie: not a single hoofmark] was to be seen, nor a blade broken. 

Richard Dadd: Bacchanalian scene

Monday 16 July 2012

On Making Things

I'm lucky to have the sort of mother who never throws things out - at least, not things her children have made, no matter how long ago or how badly.  I was over at her house the other day, helping her go through drawers, and out of one of them emerged this rather sorry-looking embroidered bird.  I'll explain more about him in a minute.

In Chaucer’s time, the word for a poet or author was ‘a maker’ - as witness the Scots poet William Dunbar’s luminous ‘Lament for the Makers’, in which he lists poet after poet taken by ‘the strong unmerciful tyrant’, death:

‘He has done piteouslie devour
The noble Chaucer, of makers flower;
The Monk of Bery, and Gower all three:
Timor mortis conturbat me.’

(In fact, damn it, go and read the poem first, and come back and read this after you’ve done.)

‘Maker’: I’ve always liked it. It’s less high-falutin’ than ‘author’ or ‘poet’: it links us inextricably – as we ought to be linked – with every other sort of human creativity. People make furniture. We make paintings, musical instruments and gardens. We make brain scanners, television programmes and films. We make homes. We make love – which as Ursula K Le Guin once wrote in the ‘The Lathe of Heaven’ (go and read that too), ‘doesn’t just sit there like a stone; it has to be made, like bread; re-made all the time, made new.’

None of these things (furniture, gardens, brain scanners etc) just happen. You can’t make anything worth having without a great deal of effort. I should know, because every spring I spend days digging weeds (mainly bindweed roots: thick, white, snappy coiling things) out of my flower beds. But what a difference the work makes when summer comes!

Children love to make things, and they ought to be encouraged to do so and praised for the results - even if the results aren't perfect in some adult, idealistic, Platonic sense. Writing is 'making something' just as much as modelling with clay or painting a picture: and primary school children especially ought to be allowed to experiment and have fun and feel proud of themselves - not to be marked and judged and compared and made to feel unskilled and inadequate. My brother and I were part of the Blue Peter generation, and he was fantastic at making things out of Squeezy bottles and cornflakes packets. He went on to construct model planes that really flew, and can now turn his hand to just about anything, including boats, house extensions, and beautiful, glossy musical instruments like mandolas. He’s become an accomplished folk musician who can compose his own tunes.

Me, I tried. I longed to own a model sailing ship, so I made my own very ugly one out of balsa wood (d'you remember balsa wood, light and fragile, and soft enough to be cut with scissors?) and painted it yellow. It had so many holes in the hull, it would have sunk like a stone, but I made it and loved it till it was squashed flat in a house removal by heartless, careless men from Pickfords. I longed to own an exquisite piece of Chinese embroidery I’d seen framed in a big house, smothered in birds and flowers – so I found a bit of frayed blue satin and laboriously stitched away.  And the result?  The puckered, lumpy, clumsy bird at the head of this post.

I wanted a miniature Chinese garden like one I’d read about in a book – so I borrowed a tray and arranged gravel and stones and moss around a tin lid (for the pool) and stood some china ornaments around it till the moss dried and the tray got knocked over. Oh, and I wanted an eighth Narnia book, so I got an old blue notebook and wrote my own. Here it is:

(You can see more of it on my website.) And although none of the things I made may have been any good by some unrealistic ultimate critical standard, it was the making that counted.

Even while I was making it I knew perfectly well that my embroidered bird fell short - far, far short - of the beautiful thing I'd seen and wanted to copy.  And no, I never became any more competent with a needle than that.  But at least I tried to be a maker. For me, the writing is what has lasted. I’m not an embroiderer or a woodworker or a musician. I'd love to be, but I know I haven't the time or the patience to learn the craft.  And that's the thing - going back to Chaucer again: 'The lyf so short, the craft so longe to lerne'.  When I'm writing I can't begin to tell you how many times I rewrite every page, every sentence. We - children - all of us - need to try lots of different things, so that we can figure out what to concentrate on, what to practice and get good at.  But it's all making, all of it! and any child who hammers a nail in straight, paints a picture or bakes brownies knows how good it feels.

Here’s a poem by Robert Bridges which says it all, really - the aspiration, the delight, and the inevitable falling short.  But isn't that why we pick ourselves up and try again?

I love all beauteous things,
I seek and adore them.
God hath no better praise,
And Man in his hasty days
Is honoured for them.

I too will something make,
And joy in the making,
Although tomorrow it seem
Like the empty words of a dream,
Remembered on waking.